Federal Conference Spending Is in Decline, Lawmakers Told

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The Obama administration’s governmentwide bid to curb spending on travel and conferences saved roughly $2 billion from fiscal 2010 to 2012, Controller Danny Werfel told a House panel on Wednesday.

“These reductions have been the result of reducing overall travel, and also ensuring that required travel is completed in a cost-effective manner,” he said in testimony prepared for the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census Committee.

As part of an ongoing response to last year’s scandal stemming from overspending at a Las Vegas training conference by some managers at the General Services Administration, the Office of Management and Budget hopes to reduce spending by as much as 20 percent below 2010 levels by the end of 2013, with cuts in areas such as travel, information technology devices, the executive fleet and agency promotional items. Werfel said the goal involves a 30 percent reduction in travel funds as well as greater transparency and accountability. Agencies delivered their first progress reports on Jan. 31.

Subcommittee Chairman Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, opened the hearing by noting that if agencies meet OMB’s goal, “the federal government will still have spent around $4.6 billion in non-military federal employee travel this year.”

Despite new procedures requiring high-level approval of conference expenditures exceeding a certain cost threshold, Farenthold said, there were 750 conferences that cost more than $100,000 in fiscal 2012 alone. “The total cost to the taxpayers for these events was more than a quarter of a billion dollars,” he said.

Farenthold said he was assessing the need for legislation such as the Government Spending Accountability Act (H.R. 313) to improve compliance. “With the looming $85 billion across-the-board sequester spending cuts, and the administration’s unwillingness to offer specific cost-saving measures,” Farenthold said, “today’s hearing offers us an opportunity to hear how OMB’s directive – if fully and responsibly implemented -- can potentially help save the taxpayers billions of dollars by reducing travel and conference costs that may not be necessary for a federal employee to discharge the duties of their office.”

Werfel summarized some specific agency achievements:

  • The Health and Human Services Department reviewed controls and policies for 120 conferences and reduced costs by $8 million;
  • The Defense Department “updated policies, reduced attendees, and combined or canceled several conferences,” including 90 previously planned by the Army, and killed a major Air Force technology conference that would have cost $1.7 million; and
  • The Labor Department instituted new controls and canceled 100 conferences, saving $1.5 million.

Cynthia Metzler, chief administrative services officer for GSA, which has overall federal responsibility for modeling policy on conferences, said her agency is “utilizing its unique leverage,” coordinating with OMB and the Pentagon to achieve savings. It saved the government $20 million in fiscal 2013 by freezing the federal per diem travel reimbursement at 2012 levels, she said.

GSA is also terminating -- already at GSA and soon governmentwide -- the “conference lodging allowance” that pays extra to federal travelers when they attend a private conference that costs more than their per diem allows. “To help agencies prioritize use of federally owned space,” Metzler added, “GSA has created an online tool known as ‘Federal Meeting Facilities,’ which identifies federal agencies that have conference and meeting space for agencies’ use.” Her agency is enhancing its “e-Gov travel system” to consolidate online travel bookings.

In addition GSA has formed a governmentwide travel advisory committee, she added, that will assemble experts from private industry and state and local governments to identify further ways to reduce travel costs.

Though most lawmakers appeared to agree that greater savings are possible in the travel and conference area, Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., the panel’s ranking member, said it was important also to “explore any negative impacts on agency mission and the services provided to the American people that restrictions on travel and conference spending may cause. I fully appreciate that spending reductions need to be made to address our nation’s fiscal problems,” he said, “but we also need to be aware that cuts may affect agencies’ missions and services.”

Lynch joined Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., in relaying the scientific community’s concerns, placing in the record letters on the value of professional conferences from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

“We should be spending more on the conferences like those which promote innovation in microbiology, physics, chemistry, and a myriad of other scientific subject areas," Holt said. "These instances are not wasteful spending, but instead are examples of federal investments in innovation and economic development."

(Image via B. Melo/Shutterstock.com)

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